Thursday, November 17, 2016

Book Review - Kill 'Em and Leave by James McBride

Ostensibly a biography of legendary performer James Brown, James McBride uses it to tell a much larger, heartrending story about American racism, greed, violence, and poverty.  The author begins with a tale about how, near the end of his life, James Brown lived in Queens - not far away from the McBride's.  The author's sister Dottie, as a young child, bravely walked up to Mr. Brown's house, rang his doorbell, and actually spoke with the man himself.  This, combined with McBride's musicianship, training as a journalist, love of Mr. Brown's music, and a tip about a contact who might be able to shed some light on the myth of the man, meld together to create the masterpiece Kill 'Em and Leave.

Born into post-reconstruction, abject poverty, James Brown overcame tremendous adversity through luck, unrelenting hard work, talent, and ruthless ambition to become The Godfather of Soul.  The author expertly weaves information about Mr. Brown's life as well as the lives of family members, friends, business associates, and his community to give a portrait of a man who actively didn't want to be known by anyone.  For someone who was, during the height of his career, constantly in the public eye and surrounded by people, he led quite a lonely life.  He trusted no one, especially with his money, and would often portray different personas to different people, and at different times.

He married many times, had multiple mistresses, and fathered a number of children; the total number is unknown but likely to be around 13.  He loved women, but was capable of emotional and physical brutality if they didn't live up to his exacting and rigid standards.  He also was erratic with those who worked for him.  If you were his employee - a musician, manager, radio station secretary, or whatever - you may or may not get your paycheck regularly, and Mr. Brown may fire you just for asking about the money.  He did not trust banks, and would hide money all over the place: Under floorboards in hotel rooms, buried in the ground, in friends houses, etc.  He would accept payment only in cash, concealed in brown paper bags disguised to look like they held sandwiches.  He, himself, never had a clear idea of how much money he had at any given time.

When James Brown died, settling his estate became a nightmare for many reasons.  First, due to his aversion to banks and monetary accountability, nobody had a clear idea of how much the estate was worth.  Second, he did not have a good relationship with most of his ex-wives, mistresses, and children, and his Will left very little money to them.  The bulk of his estate (~ $100 million) was earmarked to be distributed to benefit poor and disadvantaged youth.  However, due to the greed of the family and their legal teams (all of whom were part of an "Old Boys Club" of University of SC Law School graduates and judges), and the racism, cronyism, and and sexism of the South Carolina judicial system - the wishes expressed in his Will have still not been executed.  Many additional lives have been affected in the process of sorting out James Brown's Will, including his business manager, his accountant, and a local newspaper reporter.  As of the printing of Kill 'Em and Leave, there has been no progress in resolving the legal issues, yet the estate's funds are diminishing at a rapid rate to cover legal fees.

One aspect of the book that was especially interesting was how often the author wrote about the difficulties involved in writing the book.  Passages to this effect appear throughout, and add some depth and clarity to the life of a man who was purposely unclear.  The author gets the run-around from James Brown's family members, band members, friends, and basically anyone to whom he speaks.  James Brown was a puzzle wrapped in an enigma - just the way he wanted to be.

Kill 'Em and Leave is an ambitious, engrossing, deeply respectful, and hard-hitting look at The Godfather of Soul and the American society that bore him, brought him up, and ultimately tore him down.  You'll learn about James Brown and his career, mostly through the lenses of those who knew even a part of who James Brown was.  He was a complicated man who lived a complicated life, and while James McBride's book tries to untangle and make sense of it, James Brown is left still very enigmatic.

Librorum annis